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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

From L to R: David Frazier Jr., Keith Witty, and Christophe Panzani. Photo courtesy of the artist.

THIEFS is an ongoing and evolving brainchild of bassist Keith Witty and saxophonist Christophe Panzani, with drummer David Frazier Jr. as well as a rotating cast of additional improvisers and vocalists. The electro-acoustic ensemble transcends idiom and merges musical approaches in startling ways, as on their latest record, GRAFT. This performance at The Jazz Gallery will be THIEFS’ only New York City performance in 2019. Over the course of the evening, the trio of Witty, Panzani, and Frazier plan to take old and new compositions and blast them wide open.

In prior interviews with WBGO and Bandcamp Daily, Witty spoke thoroughly about the specific inspirations and processes behind the music. In our recent phone call, we took a different angle, and spoke about the challenges of having a transatlantic band, preparing new music on a tight schedule, and the creative growth of a logistically complex project.

Keith Witty: The fundamental challenge of our group is finding a way to exist, survive, and create. Getting gigs is one thing, but booking gigs that get us onto the same continent is more tricky. A gig at a small club in Boston might be wonderful, but it’s not going to get Christophe over the ocean. Same for a small club in Paris, or any city really. We have to bring everything we have to the table to try to figure out how to play. That’s detrimental in many ways, but it’s a benefit in that it makes us focus on what we want to do. We don’t have time to be frivolous. That has helped us hone our ideas and put an extra layer of thought into our conceptual movement as well. It has driven discussions about what we are trying to do, how we might hone it, how we can make it happen, and how we might change and grow. A lot of times, we’re sending each other things transatlantically, and for the gig in New York, we’ve set aside a rehearsal day for new material, which is a challenge, because we have a lot of current material to brush up on as well. We always have to find a way to make it work.

TJG: Having new material seems vital in a band like yours. In the WBGO interview, you discussed how you view jazz as music that’s alive, of the present, authentic to the group. Having new music must feel critical, even though it’s hard to get it together when you’re not living together.

KW: It does. I produce a lot of records these days, and there’s something vital and beautiful about the process of bringing compositions to their live iteration glory, to full fruition. In so many cases these days, people are recording and sculpting music in the studio that they haven’t pressed on the stage, pushed around, tugged and pulled at for months before it takes shape. In some ways, even though our last record came out over a year ago, we’re still figuring out how we best want to play some of the music. We’re stretching some of it out, so we’re figuring out what the improvisational approach is. There’s a lot of creativity, newness, freshness to that. We’ve added maybe three compositions to the repertoire since then that will make their way onto the next record. We’re trying to make sure that when we get together, there’s some opportunity to play through something new, even if it’s a sketch, just to keep the creative wheels turning.

TJG: When and where were your most recent shows?

KW: Our last shows were in Europe. We played a festival in Switzerland, NoVa JaZz. It was a small festival in a small town, but had such a great lineup. Ambrose Akinmusire, Shai Maestro, BIGYUKI, it was wonderful to be in the company of such artists who I feel approach music in a similar way, completely void of traditional parameters. There may be loose guidelines of what jazz might mean to each person, but everyone who the festival programmed, it felt like to me, was making the exact music they wanted to make, straight out of their heads and their hearts. It’s nice when programmers get what you’re trying to do, and put you with people who don’t necessarily sound like you, but are approaching music-making from a similar standpoint.

On that run we also did a masterclass and concert in Grenoble, France. That was the first concert we’ve done as a trio, as we’re going to do at the Gallery, no vocals, just instrumental explorations of the material. The room was packed with students. It felt great.

TJG: When you’re doing a trio hit like that, how are you able to push and pull the material? How does your live performance speak in conversation with the music on the record?

KW: Performing with vocalists, with this music or any music, is so fresh and dynamic. There’s a presence to it that’s hard to match. The human voice is draws people in, it’s so attractive, so persuasive. It’s a wonderful thing to prioritize. However, it requires structure. I’ve come across very few vocalists in my life, including rappers, singers, poets, whatever, who can roll with the punches when the structure disintegrates or changes. These real improvisationally-minded MCs or vocalists exist, but it’s rare. So we’ve geared what we’ve done musically toward that vocal presentation in the last couple of years, and usually a third to a half of our shows will feature vocals on some section. But when we play trio, all the doors fly wide open. Instrumentalists who have steeped themselves in improvisation, that deep comfort with the uncertainty of what’s happening next, can respond to things in such different and developed ways. Approaching the music with this trio, anything goes. We’ve been talking in rehearsals about trying this or that, but in performance, it doesn’t matter which of those choices we make, which avenue we travel down, because we’ll emerge on the other side one way or another. Mistakes don’t exist.

TJG: In this upcoming show, do you have a sense of how you’ll be balancing the old and new material?

KW: We’ll see. As a band, we like the idea that some pieces are very structured, and we can still play a three- or four-minute song if we want to. There’s nothing wrong with executing a well-written composition, just as there’s nothing wrong with blowing the roof off another composition and disappearing into another 20-minute improvisation that veers from its origins. As we make a setlist, we’ll keep a conversation going.

TJG: You know how the the Gallery is such a space of experimentation. Whatever you do will be most welcome.

KW: Yeah. I’ve always felt that way as I’ve played there over the last couple of decades, every time I find myself there.

TJG: Talk to me a little about the unique chemistry between you, David, and Christophe.

KW: Are you a musician?

TJG: Yeah.

KW: So you know. The hookup is its own thing. It’s hard to put it into words. It deserves poetry. It’s not a very scientific thing. Certain sounds just go well together. Certain feelings of the way we move through time just seem to latch up because they are very symmetrical, or they are deeply opposite in ways that balance each other. This band started with me, Christophe, and the drummer Guillermo E. Brown. Guillermo and I go all the way back. We have that kind of ‘fighting’ thing in the music: After we would play, people would say “Wow, you sound so good together,” but we’d be sort of pissed at each other [laughs], one of us would be thinking “He was so behind the beat,” or “He was so far ahead” or whatever it might be. The space between us was creating friction that people, myself included, really loved.

The first time Christophe and I played together at his studio in Paris, about ten years ago now, it was like we were painting with the same brush. The sounds we made were like puzzle pieces, they clicked together. We started practicing together, exercises, shapes, things like that. It was easy, like practicing by myself but way more fun. He’s been a natural partner for me ever since. It’s funny, we’re almost the same size and body type. I’ll look at him and ask “What are you wearing,” because it’s so close to what I’m wearing [laughs]. We have symmetry in a lot of ways.

David was called in as a sub for a tour in 2015 when Guillermo got the job drumming for The Late Late Show under Reggie Watts’ direction. I called Kassa Overall to do the tour, but he couldn’t make it. I explained that we needed someone who comes from a jazz background, is deeply fluent with hip hop and beats, fluid on the drum set but also has a fully-integrated electronic drumming, sampling, triggering rig and mentality, who can move from the snare drum to the drum pad employing the same creative impulses. That’s a tall order. I said, “Kassa, who would you call?” He said: “David Frazier Jr.” with no hesitation.

So, David came over to the house and started playing. You know those days where your perception is off? I kept asking myself, “Why does it sound so good? Why is it so easy to play with this guy? I must be missing something, or I must be wanting to find a sub quickly.” But I was second-guessing myself and my instincts: David is an amazing musician. His relationship with the kit is super deep, and he’s a great fit. The band has been able to elevate since he stepped in, and has allowed us to write in a different way. It’s boundless, what we can ask David to do, and he cam make it feel great and accessible. We love him.

TJG: So when you’re scattered across the globe in the way you are, but you still have to get stuff done, plan tours, and put together new material, how does the responsibility fall on each of you?

KW: Since the beginning, it’s been mine and Christophe’s band, and we would employ a drummer we loved, even if it was a drummer we employed over and over again. When we’re in the states, I’m typically trying to work out the logistics, and working with venues and agents to make things happen. When we’re in Europe, the majority of the time, it’s Christophe who’s meeting those charges. At this point, David is every bit a band member. We’re not just calling someone else if he’s not free for a gig. We’ve asked him to bring material for the next project and he’s into it, so I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring in compositionally.

David is also out there touring more extensively than I am. I’m home a lot with my kids, and trying not to be on the road as much. He’s a great source of ideas and inspiration, in terms of how people are touring these days, and what’s happening on stages. We had a long talk the other day about how James Blake is performing his new album and using electronics at festivals, how youth music markets are approaching innovation, and especially how technologic innovation is happening in R&B, hip-hop, electronic music, but not in jazz. Those things are important for us in figuring how to emulate some of those processes, and make our music as fresh and living as ever, not just in trying to keep up, but to extend the creative palette.

THIEFS plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. The group features Keith Witty on bass, Christophe Panzani on saxophone, and David Frazier Jr. on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.